Cuomo proposes full-time Legislature, term limits, easier voting and public campaign funding
In his sixth and final State of the State Address in Albany, Gov. Andrew Cuomo outlined a plan to limit outside income of lawmakers, create a full-time Legislature, impose term limits for elected officials and make it more difficult for companies to spend unlimited campaign donations on political candidates.
“Unfortunately in Albany, there have been a series of breeches of the trust,” said Cuomo, even acknowledging there has been corruption in his own office.
“It has happened in the Legislature, both houses. It’s happened in the state Comptroller’s Office. It’s happened in my own office,” the governor said. “We have to do more to restore the public trust.”
The far-reaching plan would also institute public financing of elections, require state legislators to get an advisory opinion before taking outside jobs, expand the powers of the Inspector General’s Office to oversee non-profits that work with SUNY and CUNY schools, create new inspectors general for the Port Authority and State Education Department, and appoint a chief procurement officer to oversee all state purchases and contracts.
“We have to say to the people of this state, ‘We get it, people will do bad things, that is the nature of humanity, but we’re going to have as many precautions as possible, and when someone does something wrong, we’re going to make sure they’re punished to the full extent of the law and we have a system that’s going to catch them.’”
Specifically, Cuomo’s plan would require a constitutional amendment to limit lawmakers’ outside pay to 15 percent of their legislative base salary and another constitutional amendment to change legislative terms to four-year terms and limit legislators to serving a total of eight years.
Cuomo is also pushing a bill that would require all legislators to seek an advisory opinion from the legislative ethics commission before earning outside income. He also wants to institute a voluntary public financing system that matches small donations with public funds and place a $25,000 contribution limit on housekeeping accounts and require all “bundlers” to disclose their identities.
Good government groups are cautiously optimistic about these proposed changes.
“Common Cause New York supports many of the ethics reforms Governor Cuomo proposed in his most recent State of the State address,” said Susan Lerner, the group’s executive director. “We look forward to seeing more details from the governor on his latest ethics proposals soon.”
The New York Public Interest Research Group says “the devil is in the details,” particularly when it comes to the development of public policy. Once the governor’s plans are advanced in legislative form, the groups says it will have a clearer sense of the potential impacts.
Another of Cuomo’s proposals calls for increased participation in the democratic process by enacting same-day voter registration and early voting privileges. New York, despite being one of the highest-stake electoral states, had a 57 percent voter turnout rate in November. Eliminating barriers to voting produce results similar to states like Colorado and Maine that allow same-day registration and see higher voter turnout numbers approaching 75 percent.
“We also need to see ‘no excuse’ absentee balloting to actually get our voting output up in the state,” said Barbara Bartoletti, legislative director of the New York State League of Women Voters. No excuse absentee balloting allows any voter to use that method without being forced to explain why they are voting via an absentee ballot. “We need to pass what the governor has recommended, but he needs to provide the leadership to make sure that it does happen this session in the legislature.”
Cuomo’s break in the traditional State of the State Address, which was delivered in an unprecedented series of six speeches from Long Island to Buffalo, caused some consternation among state legislators. But Cuomo explained his reasoning during the Albany event.
“I wanted to break the model, it’s about talking to the people now,” Cuomo said. “This is not a government from 100 years ago.”
New York Republican State Chairman Edward Cox, met with reporters outside the UAlbany Performing Arts Center following the speech to provide his party’s reaction to the policy priorities, and the way they were presented this year.
“The State of the State, in the Constitution, requires a message to the Legislature, but the Legislature is not there,” Cox said. “[Cuomo] is in front of an adoring audience, and actually a lot of what he’s saying is delusional.”
Cox questioned the ethics of Governor Cuomo and his supporters themselves. “He’s going around talking with empty promises and dealing out pork from his own personal pork barrel of taxpayers’ money rather than facing the music with the legislators that he insulted in December,” said Cox, referring to a rift over legislative pay raises.
“There is a palpable sense of tension between the Legislature and the Executive Chamber. These two government entities need to work together this year, and to do that, they must have trust in one another,” said Bartoletti. “There is a feeling among the Legislature that this is an overreaching executive and there is a feeling among the executive that the Legislature isn’t working up to its sense, so we have to see those two branches coming together much more closely and mend some of those bridges they burned during last session,” Bartoletti said.
A black and white image of Franklin Roosevelt signing the New Deal was displayed across the large on-stage screen projection while Governor Cuomo spoke about the widespread reach of his economic and social proposals. In addition to the ambitious ethics and elections reform package, the governor also proposed a host of economic development initiatives and social equality proposals.
In early January, aligning himself with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Cuomo unveiled his first State of the State proposal, free statewide tuition for SUNY and CUNY universities.
Access to free college through the Excelsior Scholarship Program would be provided to all families making less than $125,000 annually.
Equal pay for women, protecting the right to choose, justice reform, homelessness and the 2.7 million uninsured New Yorkers were included as priorities in Cuomo’s New York Promise to remain the progressive leader of the United States.
Cuomo’s signature infrastructure improvement is a re-imagining of JFK Airport to improve the experience of travelers coming into New York.
He also wants to close Indian Point Nuclear Power Facility 14 years ahead of schedule, closing Unit 2 in 2020 and Unit 3 in 2021 while relocating workers.
Another proposal of Cuomo’s is to institute stronger regulations on what he refers to as “bad actors” in the financial services industry. The proposal would place more severe punishment on the fraudulent behavior of banking and insurance professionals who prey on New Yorkers, especially senior citizens.
Cuomo’s Executive Budget, unveiled January 17, would provide funding for many of these changes, including establishing new oversight offices and producing reports on the feasibility of some of these ideas.
The governor said no large-scale changes can happen until leaders restore the public trust among New Yorkers.
“Imagine what we could do if we really had 100 percent confidence from the people of this state. If they knew that we were 100 percent total integrity, we had that confidence,” Cuomo said in the closing of his Albany State of the State Address. “There’s nothing that we couldn’t do, and I’m not going to stop trying until I get there.”